Saturday, 31 March 2018

Gardens and Gardeners - an Easter sermon

Easter begins in a garden, in the very early morning. Women are horror-struck to find the tomb empty, and the only thing they can imagine is that it’s been desecrated. One of them, Mary of Magdala stays by the tomb, weeping. And then someone speaks to her, someone she doesn’t recognise - I wonder why? Perhaps her eyes were too full of tears? But in the Easter stories people often fail to recognise Jesus, to begin with, anyway. I suppose that makes sense. Why would you recognise the one person you never expected to see again? Anyway, Mary thought it was the gardener.

It strikes me as interesting, reflecting on that, that the story that leads to the cross also begins in a garden, or so scripture tells us, in the book of Genesis. It begins with Adam, placed by God in the Garden of Eden - as the gardener.

I can’t help but wonder therefore if when John first wrote his account of that first Easter Day, he might have had Adam the Gardener of Eden in mind, when Mary thinks it’s the gardener she’s talking to? In Cardinal Newman's great hymn 'Praise to the Holiest in the Height' we find these words: "O loving wisdom of our God! When all was sin and shame, a second Adam to the fight and to the rescue came." And St Paul wrote: "As by one man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead; as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive."

Spring is rather slow this year, but it is just beginning now in my garden. And after all the snow and frost all of a sudden I’m surrounded by little signs of resurrection: things that looked dead are starting to sprout, birds that were sullenly silent have started singing, and I’ve even seen a couple of ladybirds. Not everything's pulled through, and I’ll have to do some planting, but I’m looking forward to being out in the garden again. It’s nice to do my bit to make my little corner of earth a place of growth and beauty. As the saying goes, you’re closer to God in a garden than anywhere else on earth.

Gardeners feel the rhythms of time and season, and the cycles of beginning and dying, which is how our living world operates. We live in four dimensions, but it’s the fourth of those, time, that truly rules our lives. None of us can escape the ticking of the clock. But though we are creatures of time, we have a spiritual side to us as well: the bit of us that’s moved by a soaring melody, or a dramatic painting, or the view from a mountain top - or even the beauty of a well-kept garden. Long ago, one of the writers of the Old Testament put it this way: "God has made everything beautiful in its time, and he has set eternity in the hearts of men."

In a way that’s the essential tragedy of human existence, that we are creatures of time, and yet have eternity in our hearts. It means we can never realise that eternal possibility that’s there within us. Adam the first gardener messed things up, got things wrong, and got slung out of the garden. We do it too: our rash and thoughtless acts, our petty selfishness and greed hurt those around us spoil God's creation. Usually we don't mean it, and we'd much rather be good. But like Adam we mess up and get it wrong.

For me there's no day that brings that home more sharply than Good Friday. One traditional prayer of the Church speaks of Jesus as being 'betrayed into the hands of wicked men'. But really these guys were not so much wicked as weak, short-sighted, selfish. The high priests, the scribes and Pharisees, Pontius Pilate and his Roman soldiers, even Judas Iscariot: they weren’t monsters, they didn’t I think want to do bad things. Yet the deepest evil ever seen happened because of what they did or didn’t do, and on Good Friday the Son of God died like a common criminal. Peter was to blame too, and John and the other disciples. When it mattered, they’d all run away. Joseph of Arimathea provided a tomb when it was all over, but couldn't he have done something to save Jesus? How come all kinds of people from Pontius Pilate down sent this blameless man to die just because a mob shouted for it?

Modern Passion Plays have become very popular around the country at Easter - The Wirral, York, Edinburgh, Epsom, Belper, to name a few this year. London, of course, in Trafalgar Square. Last year the Manchester Passion happened again, I’m not sure whether there was one this year but I don’t think so. But it’s the one from 2006 that stays with me, the first one; I watched some of the BBC broadcast again the other day on YouTube - the ending especially. What a great concept, an acted out Passion Play on the streets of Manchester, using songs mostly by Manchester bands. As things moved to a close Mary Magdalene sang a really sad version of the Elkie Brookes song “Sunshine after the Rain”; then the compere came on to wrap things up and sign off, having, in the guise of Pontius Pilate, received confirmation of the prisoner's death. But in fact the story wasn’t over. Suddenly there came a great shout and cheer, as on the clock tower of Manchester City Hall Jesus appeared singing "I am the resurrection and I am the life." That’s what Passion Plays were always about, they presented the drama of salvation in a dramatic form that could speak directly to all who came to see - that could speak directly to that part of each of us that’s a spark of what’s divine, a spark of what’s eternal.

St John’s account this morning is quieter but every bit as full of drama. Mary discovers that it's not the gardener she’s talking to, it's not the old failed first Adam; her master, rabbi and friend calls her by name. She’s in the presence of the new Adam, free now from the bonds of time and sin and death. That’s already wonderful - but then he sends her to the disciples. Tell them, he says, “that I am going to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” So we are included in what he has done, it’s not just his victory, it’s ours as well. Today Christ is risen to restore in us the eternity God made us for. So for me every spring day in the garden is my assurance that the story’s not over. It isn't, and it never will be. Time and mortality don’t have the last laugh. For Christ is risen, and time can’t steal him from us. He is risen indeed, opening our way to dwell forever in the Father's love.

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